Post-Gogol: The Silent Abscence of the Body

—Marek Bartelik

Post-Gogol: The Silent Absence of the Body

“Gogol, not Google”… and we laughed. The verbal pun with the shaky homophones appeared on the Internet on the occasion of the bicentennial of Gogol’s birth last year. It suggested a certain degree of resistance to the growing “defamiliarization” with the Russian writer’s name and his works and pointed to the mechanization of referents on the Internet: we type a few letters and the computer finds the word we search, often prematurely guessing it wrong.

The defamiliarization that interests me here extends back considerably in time, to its original mention in Russian as ostranenie (остранение), which Victor Shklovsky discussed in his essay “Art as Device,” written in 1917. For the Russian formalist critic, poetic language departs dramatically from everyday speech in that it is unobvious, unconventional, and impractical, while the vernacular language grows increasingly automatized, ordinary, and immediate. The role of art, as a form of a “deautomatized” and “tortuous” poetic expression, is “to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” Shklovsky further explained that since “the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself,” to be fully effective it must be prolonged by using barbarisms, archaisms and foreign words, as well as by employing unusual perspectives, such as making a narrator speak as a horse (as in Tolstoy’s Kholstomer)—or having a character reduced to a body part (Gogol’s The Nose). To a large degree, Shklovsky’s ostranenie rationalizes zaum ( заумь or заумный язык , in Russian), usually translated as “transreason,” or “language beyond mind,” a term invented around 1913 by the Russian Futurist poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh to mean a form of sound symbolism intended to awake wild imagination.

The newest experiences of defamiliarization take us from Gogol to Google, or more exactly to the interference of technology with our present speech, which is not only mediated through such devices as the computer, but also impacted by the way we process information and learn via the Internet. As has been noted often, electronic technologies threaten the existence of books in their traditional form. With printed books becoming almost immediately electronically accessible on the Internet, they become dematerialized—but also deregulated by all kinds of virtual alterations to their original structure, from having certain parts left blank by publishers to their content being changed, even fabricated, by inventive individuals. The present state of the book seems to resemble the fate of the original text as described by Jorge Luis Borges in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in which Cervantes’s novel has been re-written with the existing material—but all “unnecessary” passages have been removed—to make it appealing to the contemporary reader, rather than fixed.

With its seemingly endless matrix of referents available on the World Wide Web, the Internet changes our knowledge and perception, while reaching a new, mostly involuntary, level of ostranenie, as well as zaum, which is also reflected in the way the information about writers such as Gogol circulate on the Internet. Take this for an example: I google “Gogol” and come across the synopsis of a play entitled “The Death of Gogol and the 1969 Eurovision Contest,” staged in London in 2005: “[A]s 18-year-old singer/songwriter, and communist lesbian virgin, Lenny Kuhr prepares to represent the Netherlands in the 1969 Eurovision Song Contest, Stuart sends off his life’s work in the post. The work, a radical treatise which will set the record straight about exactly how gay the gay Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol was. What was his predilection for Cossacks all about? Is his nose imagery less than phallic?”

I laugh again. Nowadays, the life and death of Gogol appear to fascinate as much as his work; in fact, they constantly merge. This phenomenon might reflect the growing fictionalization of reality inside and outside of cyberspace and the questioning of the objective validity of historical truth. Shklovsky anticipated that type of “virtualization” of experience when he wrote: “In life people are guided by words, not by deeds. It is not so much that they love the possibility of doing or not doing something as they love the possibility of speaking with words, agreed on among themselves, about various topics.” Octavio Paz put it even more directly The Other Mexico: Critique of the Pyramid: “Social criticism begins with grammar and the re-establishing of meanings.” Language impacts our lives and defines our behavior. Many writers are preoccupied with such ideas, while keeping their faith in the power of the book as an entity, and in its integrity. That is, in fact, what Vladimir Nabokov acknowledges in the following passage:

Gogol was born on the 1st of April, 1809. According to his mother … a poem he had written at the age of five was seen by Kupnist, a well-known writer of sorts. Kupnist embraced the solemn urchin and said to the glad parents: “He will become a writer of genius if only destiny gives him a good Christian for teacher and guide.” But the other thing—his having been born on the 1st of April—is true.

They are numerous ways of evaluating Gogol’s brilliance as a writer. Certainly, he is a true master of ostranenie . Nabokov again: “But after reading Gogol one’s eyes may become gogolized and one is apt to see bits of his world in the most unexpected places.” Or perhaps the real world has always been made of such “unexpected places,” which Gogol helps expose in a spectacular manner. Despite being very grounded in the local specifics of mid-nineteenth century Russia, the time and the place of action in Gogol’s stories is basically irrelevant, for we carry Gogol in and with us as an exemplar of highest standards in art, regardless of our age or nationality. By recalling his stories, we acknowledge the lasting power of poesis. The experience is humbling, yet illuminating, as it provides a vital inspiration for being creative on our own.

Gogol’s stories celebrate the haunting appearance of physical objects and images, in which laughter, sometimes through tears, serves as a potent agent of timeless sublimity. As Shklovsky argued, since poets “ are more concerned with arranging images that with creating them … [a]rt is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” All objects are found, thus their fate must be invented. By doing that, Gogol not only nourishes our senses through his extraordinary inventions, but he kidnaps them, taking us to places where we need to confront our powerlessness before the power of art. It is laughter that is a sign of our common passion. It liberates us from time. It pacifies anger. It also calms the mind. In the end, we are satisfied with being dead souls in the world of art.

The exhibition Post-Gogol: The Silent Absence of the Body is a micro-tribute to books, or rather to the book, not as a text, a pure artifact or a found object, but rather as an inspiration (direct or indirect) for the artist. I don’t know if the artists in this show have or have not read Gogol, but I am convinced he and his writings are somehow familiar to them. By echoing such loaded referents as Gogol’s enchanted stories, these artists on their own acknowledge the power of poesis, and share “a Gogolian gusto of weird details.” They are an unusual group of individuals, who are brought together because of art, representing different generations (the oldest artist was born in 1939, the youngest in 1985) and coming from different parts of the world (U.S., Brazil, and Ukraine). They are all the hybrid and cloudy citizens of their countries: the native of Detroit, Jason Irla is currently finishing an MFA program in Baltimore, MD—probably the most “Gogolian” of all American cities I know; Lina Kim, of Korean and Brazilian family backgrounds, lives in Germany; Adam Niklewicz and Krzysztof Zarebski emigrated to the United States from Poland before the collapse of the Berlin Wall; the SOSka group consists of three Ukrainian artists (Mykola Ridnyi, Ganna Kriventsova, and Serhiy Popov) born in their country before it ceased to belong to the Soviet Union. While acknowledging their unique existence, the other thing—the opening of their exhibition on 18th of February—is true for a moment.

—Marek Bartelik